Skate Kitchen director Crystal Moselle is a keen observer of New York City outsiders. Best known for her 2015 documentary debut The Wolfpack, a portrait of seven children quarantined in a tenement apartment by protective parents, Skate Kitchen finds Moselle moving into the narrative realm with a less claustrophobic but equally immersive coming of age, this time about an all-female crew of spunky teenage skateboarders.
Moselle hones in on the Lower East Side troupe, riding under the moniker “Skate Kitchen,” through the timid but talented Camille (newcomer Rachel Vinberg), an eighteen-year-old Long Island native who follows Skate Kitchen on Instagram. When her mother forbids her from skating after an injury, Camille’s rebellious side ignites. Lying to her mother, she gingerly joins the Instagram girl gang, spending summer days trekking into city skateparks to hang out, ride, and take turns videotaping one another’s tricks.
“…the sparring strict mother, the crush on the best friend’s ex, the stunts…”
Skate Kitchen proceeds to hit recognizable teen drama beats: the sparring strict mother, the crush on the best friend’s ex, the stunts — both skating and otherwise — they’re never sure they’ll land. At first, Camille proves more reserved and innocent than the rest of the dauntless Manhattan crew, and much of her character growth rides on her initiation into a downtown world of partying and drugs and defiance of the cocksure skater boys who share their terrain. In the familiar coming of age fashion, Camille is at once dubious of and transfixed by the lifestyle.
Still, Moselle manages to construct a mellow verisimilitude of the Andrea Arnold or Elizabeth Wood variety, spinning the tropes into something rawer and freer, and the film pulsates with grit and energy and a shrewd surveilling eye. Handheld camera, jump cuts, and extreme close-ups contribute to a natural, off-the-cuff tone, and a series of skater montages are set to undulating synth or pop anthems. Crude and unidealized conversation topics among the women range from tampon usage to hookups — “do you like him?” Camille once asks a Skate Kitchen friend, to which she responds, “I like when he gives me head” — engaging the sort of anti-scripted but lightly stilted feeling of an observational documentary.
“… the film pulsates with grit and energy and a shrewd surveilling eye.”
The women’s sexuality is a source of both their power and their precarious position as female skaters in a male-dominated sport, and in the hands of a less perceptive director, Skate Kitchen might have been fodder for that cloying go-girl “empowerment” that’s become maddeningly ubiquitous among female narratives. But Moselle’s movie is more realistic than that, and also more straightforward. It’s an organic, energetic portrait of female solidarity, both in friendship and in athleticism, and that alone is worth the ride.
Skate Kitchen (2018) Written and Directed by Crystal Moselle. Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, and Kabrina Adams. Skate Kitchen played as part of the NEXT competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.